Five Days in Thailand

What Mike Gruber learned about life and law from volunteering with Habitat for Humanity

Published in 2010 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2010

It all caught up with Mike Gruber on the last day. He’d been working nonstop from 7 a.m. to dark for four days straight, building homes in Chiang Mai, Thailand as part of a Habitat for Humanity initiative. On that fifth 95-degree day, he spent seven hours on top of a house, helping lift into place a 400-pound frame and then bolting down shingles to create a roof.

Gruber was severely exhausted, dehydrated and sunburned—but he got the job done. A poor Thai family had a new home.

With thousands of other volunteers, including Jet Li and Jimmy Carter, Gruber helped add to the transformed a patch of land on the outside of the jungle, now a residential community, adding 82 houses for the working poor in November 2009. He laid bricks, installed plumbing, windows and doors, painted walls and, finally, constructed roofs. All in a little under a week.

The Thai couples who would be moving into the houses worked alongside Gruber, providing motivation during grueling days. “Once you met those people who were going in that house and saw their attitude and their willingness to work, man, everybody just pitched in,” says Gruber, equity partner at Gruber Hurst Johansen & Hail in Dallas. “It was amazing how grateful and appreciative they were, and you just know that they’re going to take care of those houses.”

The experience was humbling. Gruber took away from it “a complete intolerance for anybody complaining who hasn’t had a building dropped on them lately or hasn’t had to live in the jungle and scrounge for food. Anybody that is employed and has some clients and is making some money just needs to keep their head down and keep quiet and keep working as hard as they can to deserve what they have.”

Gruber applies that philosophy to his charity work and his law practice. He’s posted some of the largest settlements, verdicts and judgments in Dallas County, including $123 million against Blockbuster Video, $30 million against Shell Oil and $20 million against pharmaceutical company Roche. Clients include Securus Technologies Inc., Texas Capital Bank and Jones Lang LaSalle.

In his free time, Gruber has represented several federal criminal defendants pro bono. He volunteers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Today’s Foundation’s Children’s Education Fund and Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas. He’s currently helping Habitat for Humanity rebuild five of the worst neighborhoods in Dallas.

Gruber feels compelled to give back because of the lucky breaks he had in life. He had no intention to go to college, much less become a lawyer, until a high school civics teacher convinced him to take the SAT and nudged him toward the law. “I think I’d probably have painted cars all my life. I didn’t know what else was out there,” he says.

Gruber got a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University and graduated from the Dedman School of Law in 1981. After working for a few firms in Dallas, he established Gruber Hurst with three other attorneys in 2006.

Now, with the youngest of his three children turning 18, Gruber has even more time to volunteer. He says this work takes him “outside this bubble that most lawyers live inside,” which makes him a more effective lawyer.

“You meet people from all walks of life, and that is incredibly helpful in a trial practice where we’re usually in front of a jury,” he says. “[These projects] all involve people that are different than lawyers. Most of them don’t have any money, most of them don’t have any power, most of them don’t have any influence. But that’s about a third to a half of all the juries you get, too.”

The Chiang Mai trip was the first time Gruber left Dallas for charity work. He’s not much of a traveler, and, although he doesn’t like to admit it now, he was “dreading” the trip. Then he got there and his attitude changed.

“I expected chaos but it wasn’t,” he says. “So much can be accomplished when people cooperate. It’s really refreshing.”

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